Kalabagh dam ke jo bhi khilaf hai, mein kehta hun ghadaar hai! Ghadaar hai! Ghadaar hai! (Anyone against Kalabagh dam, I say is a traitor! A traitor! A traitor!) The above quote to your scribe, by a top business leader in Lahore sums up the structure of feeling and debate on water issues in Pakistan. So polarised and ossified has the debate become that to even talk about it has become anathema to me. But overcome that distaste I must, and hence this introductory salvo. I have been part of a team that has recently finished a report on sub-national scale water conflict in Pakistan. In there we talk about water conflict from the inter-provincial, to local water course level, to floods, to domestic water supply and to conflict between fisher communities and agriculturists. I will only talk about the inter-provincial here. As a water researcher, everyone I meet in Pakistan wants to know if I am pro or against Kalabagh dam. In Punjab,they assume that I must be pro-Kalabagh, because how can I not be? Any real Pakistani—read male, Sunni, Punjabi (even a fraudulent one)–has to be in favour of it. As a water researcher, everyone I meet in Pakistan wants to know if I am pro or against Kalabagh dam. In Punjab,they assume that I must be pro-Kalabagh, because how can I not be? Any real Pakistani—read male, Sunni, Punjabi (even a fraudulent one)–has to be in favour of it. My answer draws upon something that my friend Mr. Hasan Akhter Rizvi once reminded me of. There are lower level truths and higher level truths. The opposite of lower level truths is always false. And the opposite of higher level truths can be both true and false. Is light a wave or a quantum? (S)he loves me or loves me not? Should Pakistan be an Islamic or a secular country? To those who live in the universe of lower order truths, the answers to these questions have to be categorical. Our educational system and modernist predilections demand that we find the right answer and reject the wrong one. To not know is ignorant. To entertain multiple equally valid answers is confusion, and hence weakness. Ignorance we can countenance, but weakness in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Never! I will profess to being both weak and ignorant. I am not a dam expert hence don’t know if Kalabagh should be built or not. And I will also profess to be weak because I think there are many answers. For most of my career, I thought that fellow water professionals and researchers will respond to evidence—but I found they do not. And not just in Pakistan—everywhere I have worked, from the US to Central America, to Jordan to Central Asia. Having spent 20 years researching water in Pakistan and then travelling up and down the country—incidentally for the first time in Sindh in 2015, I found that the inter-provincial debate is not so much about water, as it is about visions of what kind of a polity Pakistan should be. But first towards the evidence. There is not one water professional in Pakistan who will not admit that our irrigation system is dysfunctional. As an irrigation official in Sindh said to me ‘they talk about Kalabagh dam in Punjab, baba there is a Kalabagh dam on every water course here in Sindh’. He was being too charitable. There is a Kalabagh dam on every water course in the country. The powerful, who were made powerful by the British colonial administration for its own purposes, appropriate more than their fair share of water across the system. The post-colonial Pakistani state has maintained and enhanced the power of those elements for its own purposes since independence. The geography of water access in Pakistan is not physical, but of power. That’s one reality no water professional contests, but cannot answer how a dam or two will address that reality. Secondly, the system is physically designed and legally mandated to provide water, on the assumption that a farmer will sow crops on only one third of his/her land twice a year. Farmers of course today crop all of their land twice a year. I say Pakistani Irrigation departments are the most efficient departments ever. Do they fulfill their mandate to provide the legally sanctioned amount of water to the water users? They do. The only problem is that the systemic scarcity physically, and legally built into the system is outdated. Unless one redesigns the entire irrigation system of the country, one cannot put more water into the canals beyond their designed capacity. Unless the law mandates it, one cannot put more water into the canals, even if they could physically carry the water. How will a dam or two address that issue—no one wants to talk about. Thirdly, 60 to 80 percent of the crop water requirements in the country are met by groundwater. In the fresh groundwater zone, which is about 80 percent of irrigated area in Punjab, there is practically no water scarcity. The farmers value irrigation water, not for itself, but because it is almost free—water charges have been the same since 1970 and are negligible–and for the life giving silt that the canal water brings to the farm. All that silliness about sprinkler and spring irrigation doesn’t hold in case of Pakistan with the high silt loads that are there in the water. The real water scarcity is in the saline ground water zone where people have to depend upon canal water even for drinking. Almost 80 percent of the groundwater in Sindh is saline. Fourthly, the argument goes that with more dams one will have more control and hence supply more canal water to Sindh. The Sindhis argue that if you are doing it for our benefit, why do you have two major canal projects designed around Kalabagh for central Punjab and southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK)? They argue that we are hurting without a dam right now. Once you have more water being drawn from the dam, how do we accept that we will be better off then? People complain that water is politicised. Water is life. Life is political. Water should be political. It is too important to be left to engineers alone. The debate, as I have been able to understand it, is about different understandings of what is development. The wisdom for the Punjabis seems to be that, what is in the interest of Punjab is national interest. What is in the interest of Sindh, KP or Balochistan, is—well parochial provincialism. What is the value of water? If it is to build a modernist mass consumption mass production society like the West, then perhaps Kalabagh is the way to go. But if it is to ensure greater equity, access for the poorest, and then perhaps the ecology upon which the poorest depend, then we must look for different answers. Votaries of Kalabagh dam, like Ronald Reagan, believe that a growing economy, like rising water raises all boats. Except that a growing economy doesn’t—ask your gardener, chowkidar or domestic help.